2016-05-10

Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 5: Memory Distortion

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by Tim Widowfield

Mnemosyne

Mnemosyne, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In our last post, we discussed the genre of the gospels. We saw that Bart Ehrman, at least for this book (Jesus Before the Gospels), chooses to gloss over the issue of genre, and simply assumes that the gospels contain memories of the historical Jesus. Of course, he concedes that those memories may be distorted.

But what exactly do we mean by “memory distortion”? And is it a big deal, or is it just a minor annoyance?

Human memory can fail in two ways. First, we can simply forget the past. Second, our memories of the past can become changed and distorted. These inaccurate memories can contain false details, or they can represent incidents that never happened. Our capacity for distortion affects not only our personal recollection but social memories as well.

The nature of collective memory

In the introductory chapter to Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past, Daniel Schacter writes:

A prominent theme in this area of study is that societies often hold beliefs about their pasts that are based on stories and myths that develop and change over time, often bearing little resemblance to the events that initially gave rise to them . . . 

Thus, understanding the nature of collective memory is inextricably intertwined with understanding the nature of memory distortion. Yet here, too, issues pertaining to memory distortion are of more than purely academic concern. For example, recent attempts by various fringe groups to deny the occurrence of the Holocaust have alerted scholars and the lay public alike to the extraordinary dangers that are posed by willful distortion of collective memory . . . (Schacter, 1995, p. 3, emphasis mine)

At the end of the same book, Lawrence E. Sullivan offers some closing remarks in an essay entitled “Memory Distortion and Anamnesis: A View from the Human Sciences.” He writes: read more »


2016-05-09

Interesting ISIS/Al-Qaeda developments

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by Neil Godfrey

stateterrorDo not comment on this post unless you are prepared to stay to engage with possible alternative views and defend your own ideas in civil discourse. Angry and fly-by-nighter comments may be deleted.

I keen an eye on the webpage of J.M. Berger, one of the authors of an excellent book explaining the origins, nature and goals of ISIS and who joins it and why, ISIS: The State of Terror and this morning there appeared a collection of three particularly interesting articles. We have been seeing more generally in the news that ISIS in Syria and Iraq is lately suffering significant territorial losses, though the end result is loss all round given ISIS’s “scorched earth” policy of destroying everything as they retreat. Ramadi has been recaptured by Iraqi forces but it is no longer a place anyone would want to return to. So with ISIS appearing to be on the back foot at last the following new developments are of particular interest, I think.

Syrians abandoning ISIS

The first article of special interest is published in the current issue of Foreign AffairsQuitting ISIS: Why Syrians are Abandoning the Group by and . The reasons for growing numbers of defections in recent months are as diverse as the reasons for joining ISIS in the first place. By way of reminder, some of the reasons for joining that have emerged in many of the studies: bergerstern

revkin_quittingisis_formerchildsoldier

AHMED JADALLAH / REUTERS Yazidi boy Emad, 5, and his brother Murad (back), who was trained by Islamic State, stand in a grocery at a refugee camp near the northern Iraqi city of Duhok, April 19, 2016.

  1. true believers
  2. criminals and thugs finding amnesty with ISIS in return for service
  3. the pay — raw economics
  4. hatred of Assad of Syria and ISIS appearing the most likely opposition
  5. adventurers and opportunists

I can’t repeat all the FA article here but I have linked to it above. In brief:

  1. they are in retreat, losing
  2. hypocrisy: corruption, inequality, cronyism, are as common in ISIS as elsewhere, some believe
  3. salaries are being cut
  4. to avoid being redeployed to fight in Iraq or Libya. They joined to fight Assad in Syria.

The final paragraphs are especially disturbing (my own bolding):

Although the increase in defections might seem like welcome news to the U.S.-led coalition, the trend has some alarming consequences for Syrians. In addition to summary executions of combatants or civilians who are suspected of disloyalty, ISIS has started to recruit large numbers of child soldiers to shore up its dwindling ranks. The “cubs of the Caliphate,” as ISIS calls them, are cheaper and more ideologically malleable than adults. Tarek, a former ISIS fighter from Deir Ezzor, estimated that when he deserted his unit in Deir Ezzor, 60 percent of his fellow combatants were under the age of 18. One former ISIS child soldier from al-Hasakah, Sami, was 14 years old when he first joined in 2014. . . . Sami cried as he recounted the deaths of several of his oldest childhood friends who had joined ISIS with him and were recently killed in a battle against the regime in Deir Ezzor. ISIS had been using these children as cannon fodder on the frontlines because they lacked the training and experience to be useful in other roles.

In another sign of desperation, ISIS has dramatically abbreviated the training—both physical and ideological—that its fighters must undergo. ISIS used to require that all new recruits first enroll in Islamic educational courses known as dawraat sharia, which last from 30 to 45 days, followed by military boot camp for another 30 days. But after losing Sinjar to Kurdish forces backed by U.S. airstrikes in November 2015, ISIS dramatically shortened the recruitment pipeline by eliminating military training altogether and requiring only a few days of Islamic education before sending new recruits into battle. The curriculum of the dawraat sharia covers ISIS’ version of Islamic humanitarian law, which does set some limits on violence against civilians, enemy combatants, and prisoners of war. As ISIS lowers its standards to attract new recruits, its fighters will become increasingly prone to indiscipline, corruption, and looting. Such internal problems will weaken ISIS militarily but they come at a high cost to Syrian civilians, who are likely to face increased violence and exploitation by an organization that is beginning to unravel.

Al-Qaeda giving permission for a break from its ranks

Then there is this latest intriguing development involving Al-Qaeda. Zawahiri is Bin Laden’s replacement, the leader of Al Qaeda. Al Nusra is the anti-Assad rebel group closely affiliated with Al-Qaeda. Al Jazeera reports: Zawahiri: Syria’s Nusra free to break al-Qaeda links. ISIS itself began as Al-Qaeda in Iraq led by Zarqawi (the one who began the spate of beheadings and bombings of Shia centres in Iraq) but after Zarqawi was killed in a bombing raid the new leadership broke from Al-Qaeda and morphed into ISIS, the Islamic State, in 2014. So it is interesting to see Al-Qaeda giving permission for its Syrian affiliate, Nusra, to break ranks.

The thinking appears to be that Nusra will have more leverage in peace talks and hence more clout as an anti-Assad force if it can disclaim its links to Al-Qaeda. With ISIS on the retreat, Nusra may have the opportunity to dominate the anti-Assad forces and become a major driver in Syrian politics. The Russian military action has proved to have been a game-changer but if Al-Nusra is no longer tied to Al-Qaeda there is some speculation that Russians will have less justification for attacking it.

Propaganda vulnerabilities

read more »


Once more on System 1 and System 2 thinking

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by Neil Godfrey

thinkingfastslowWhen I wrote Do You Understand What You Argue Against I had only just finished reading Richard Shenkman’s Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics and was sharing some reflections arising out of that book. In particular, I had been thinking about how Shenkman’s overview of recent findings in psychology and related studies helped us understand why so often we find people with very strong opinions about certain things (evolution, mythicism, Zionism, refugees, Muslims, terrorists, politicians, national history, poverty . . . ) even though they are incapable of explaining the viewpoint about those things that they oppose. I opened with something written by PZ Myers:

I’ve talked to creationists one-on-one about this before, and they can’t tell me what I’m thinking at all accurately — it’s usually some nonsense about hating God or loving Satan, and it’s not at all true. But at the same time, I’m able to explain to them why they’re promoting creationism in a way they can agree with.

I discussed this problem in the context of System 1 and System 2 types of thinking. It didn’t take very many comments on that post to send me looking for the main source for that model of System 1 and 2 thinking raised by Shenkman. Shenkman’s discussion was only second hand information. So I have since started reading the primary source: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (2011). When I first heard of that book I impulsively dismissed it (System 1 reaction) because I thought the title and someone’s comment about it meant it was just another pop psychology book. I have since learned I could not have been more wrong. Daniel Kahneman is not a pop psychologist. See The Guardian’s article Daniel Kahneman changed the way we think about thinking. But what do other thinkers think of him?

Excuse me if I copy and paste some paragraphs from the conclusion of Kahneman’s book. Work pressures and bouts of illness have kept me from posting anything more demanding at this stage. There will be some slight shift of understanding of the nature of System 2 thinking in what follows. (Always check the primary sources before repeating what you think you understand from a secondary source!) Bolding is my own.  read more »


2016-05-05

A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 16:  Mark as Allegory

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by Roger Parvus

For all posts in this series: Roger Parvus: A Simonian Origin for Christianity

It has been more than a year since I wrote the previous installment in this series. I have some excuses: new location, new job, and separation from well-stocked libraries. And also, I must admit, something unexpected happened during the break: I started losing interest in the early history of Christianity. So I have decided I had better try to bring this series to a close before I’m tempted to put it off altogether.

I have devoted most of the series to the Pauline letters. By now readers understand my general approach to those. I am still inclined to think that approach is correct, but I can’t say I am really comfortable with some of the particulars. Perhaps I will revisit the letters at some point. For now I want to skip ahead to the part of my theory that addresses Mark’s gospel. For me the biggest question is: where did the public ministry of the Markan Jesus come from? Paul, I have proposed, drew his beliefs about Jesus primarily from some version of the Ascension of Isaiah (see parts 7, 8 and 9). But in both extant versions of that work, and in the speculative alternative I offered, there is either no public ministry for Jesus at all or only one that is described by a single sentence. So it would seem that it was the author of Mark who first composed a public ministry for Jesus. Why did he put it together the way he did?.

Even though what follows is admittedly speculative, to my mind it seems the most likely scenario. In brief, I think the author of Mark was a Pauline Christian and his gospel was an allegory that presented Jesus as the forerunner of Paul.

 

Volkmar’s thesis

The idea that Mark is an allegory about Paul is not new. Gustav Volkmar first argued the case for this in 1857 (Die Religion Jesu) and again in 1870 (Die Evangelien, Oder Marcus und die Synopsis der kanonischen und ausserkanonischen Evangelien nach dem ältesten Text mit historisch-exegetischem Commentar). He was soon followed by others. Carl Holsten, for instance, and Moritiz Herman Schulze “approached the issue from different angles but agreed with Volkmar on the idea that the second Gospel is an apology for Paul by transferring Pauline theology ‘back’ into the sayings and doings of Jesus.” (Heike Omerzu, “Paul and Mark — Mark and Paul,” in Mark and Paul: Comparative Essays Part II — For and Against Pauline Influence on Mark, edited by Becker, Engberg-Pedersen, and Mueller, p. 52).

Volkmar’s thesis ultimately drove  a wedge into German biblical scholarship . . . Werner perceived Volkmar’s work to be in line with other recently published books which treated Jesus as a purely mythical figure.

Volkmar’s thesis ultimately “drove  a wedge into German biblical scholarship; Adolf Jülicher (1857-1938) and William Wrede (1859-1906) both appreciated Volkmar’s work, Albert Schweizer (1875-1965) and his student Martin Werner (1887-1964) did not” (Anne Vig Skoven, “Mark as Allegorical Rewriting of Paul: Gustav’s Volkmar’s Understanding of the Gospel of Mark,” p. 14, from the same collection of essays referenced above). In 1923 Werner felt the need to write a book entirely devoted to refuting Volkmar’s views regarding Mark. He argued that Volkmar was guilty of allegoresis and that his work lent support to those who denied the historical existence of Jesus (although Volkmar himself never explicitly went that far).

In the preface to his book, Werner explains his worries about the consequences of Volkmar’s line of thought. Werner perceived Volkmar’s work to be in line with other recently published books which treated Jesus as a purely mythical figure. (Anne Vig Skoven, “Mark as Allegorical Rewriting of Paul: Gustav’s Volkmar’s Understanding of the Gospel of Mark,” p. 25)

Interest in Volkmar’s thesis did subsequently subside, although that may well have been due more to the advent of form criticism than to Werner’s rebuttal:

It has been suggested that Werner’s monograph put an end to the idea of Paulinism in Mark. I would argue that it was not so much Werner’s refutation itself as the rise of form criticism that sidetracked the line of inquiry that Volkmar had initiated. As we know, form criticism concentrated on the individual pericopes and traced their history backwards in search for their Sitz-im-Leben, but it took no interest in the gospels as complete works. It is quite telling that the interest in the relationship between Paul and Mark surfaces again with redaction criticism. Anglo-American scholars inclined toward literary readings like Joel Marcus and William Telford have long advocated for ideas that resemble Volkmar’s readings. (Anne Vig Skoven, “Mark as Allegorical Rewriting of Paul: Gustav’s Volkmar’s Understanding of the Gospel of Mark,” p.26)

dykstra1I have not read the books by Volkmar, Holsten and Schulze. My knowledge of German is so rudimentary that it would take me quite a while to work my way through those volumes. Maybe once I retire. But I have read an excellent book published in 2012 in English that reaches conclusions similar to theirs.  Tom Dykstra, in his Mark, Canonizer of Paul, convincingly presents “the evidence for a literary relationship between Mark and Paul’s letters” (p. 27). He examines this relationship in a number of themes shared by Mark and Paul, especially their defense of the Gentile mission, their emphasis on a crucified Christ, and their discrediting of Jesus’ disciples and family. He argues too that there are allusions to Paul in the main parables and ending of Mark, as well as appropriations of Paul’s language and examples throughout that gospel. Dykstra concludes that Mark has in effect modeled his Jesus after Paul:

Mark deliberately created a literary Jesus whose words and actions parallel the words and actions of Paul. Mark’s Jesus defends the Gentile mission before the fact, in the face of opposition from his disciples, just as Paul defended his Gentile mission in the face of opposition from the ‘pillars,’ some of whom were reputed to have been among those disciples. To make this connection Mark portrayed Jesus leading reluctant disciples to Galilee, visiting other Gentile lands, interacting positively with individual Gentiles, performing miracles of feeding for mixed Jewish-Gentile crowds, insisting that recalcitrant disciples stop preventing children from reaching him, narrating parables, and so forth. (pp. 149-150)

Mark’s portrayal of Jesus was fashioned to provide a divine advance validation for Paul and his teaching

I cannot here do justice to all the parallels Dyskstra uncovers between Mark and Paul. I urge those interested to read his book. I find myself in agreement with much of his analysis. Like him, I think Mark’s portrayal of Jesus was fashioned to provide a divine advance validation for Paul and his teaching. As I see it, however, the Jesus episodes were intended to function more like prefigurations or foreshadowings of Paul. Some of them were intended to be within the reach of any Christian. Others were meant to be fully understood only by members of the Markan community. As an example of the first type I offer Jesus’ eating with Jewish sinners (Mk. 2:16). It likely served to prefigure/foreshadow Paul’s extension of this conduct to meals with Gentile sinners (Gal. 2:12 & 15). Similarly for Jesus’ breaking of Sabbath regulations (Mk. 2:24) and Paul’s extension of this to disregard for observance of all Jewish holy days (Gal. 4:10-11)  Likewise for Jesus’ dismissal of defilement by foods (Mk. 7:15) and Paul’s lack of any fundamental problem with eating even meat that had been offered to idols (1 Cor. 8:1-7). But, as we will see, there are many other episodes that seem to be deliberately shrouded in secrecy.

This could explain a puzzling feature of Mark

Now in all these cases Paul never tries to justify his conduct by appealing to similar precedents set by Jesus. With Dykstra, I think the reason is because there were no precedents. As I see it, the author of Mark sought to remedy this situation by creating Jesus episodes that foreshadow, prefigure and thereby validate what Paul did and taught. This could also explain a puzzling feature of Mark: “the way it consists of a number of unrelated paragraphs set down one after another with very little organic connexion, almost like a series of snapshots placed side by side in a photograph album” (The Gospel of Saint Mark, by D.E. Nineham, p. 27). To account for this most scholars, including Nineham himself, have recourse to a tradition hypothesis. Mark, they surmise, was probably working with collections of traditional material about Jesus that consisted of essentially independent stories. But it seems to me that the disconnected character of Mark would be explained equally well by Volkmar’s allegorical hypothesis. In this scenario Mark’s primary focus was on Paul, not Jesus, so he had no interest in providing a connected and developed portrayal of Jesus. His focus was on constructing Jesus episodes whose value lay in the various ways they pointed to Paul. (For a good discussion about the problems with the oral tradition theory, see chapter 3 of Dykstra’s Mark, Canonizer of Paul). read more »


2016-05-04

Do You Understand What You Argue Against?

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by Neil Godfrey

I’ve talked to creationists one-on-one about this before, and they can’t tell me what I’m thinking at all accurately — it’s usually some nonsense about hating God or loving Satan, and it’s not at all true. But at the same time, I’m able to explain to them why they’re promoting creationism in a way they can agree with. — PZ Myers

politicalanimalsPZ’s quandary reminds me of my own attempts to discuss political topics (terrorism, Islam, Israel and Palestine) and “religious” ones (methods used by Christian origins scholars, mythicism) with both academics and lay folk. Yesterday I read Jerry Coyne’s complete failure to explain the meaning of Zionism. Coyne has very strong views about Israel but he does not know what Zionism is or why some people oppose it. I have found the same ignorance when it comes to Islamist terrorism and Islam itself in a number of discussions here on this blog. Ironically that ignorance sometimes expresses itself in response to posts where I have cited or directly quoted serious research into the questions. Some people appear to ignore the explanations of the ideas they are supposedly responding to.

I once spent many, many exchanges with a Butler university then associate professor comparing the evidence for Socrates and Jesus. I could not understand why he appeared to keep repeating arguments that I thought I had so clearly demonstrated were false so I asked him to tell me what he understood my argument to be. It took quite a while but eventually he did respond and he stymied me by responding with a nonsensical idea that completely missed my point. I can only assume he was sincere and he really was not registering what I was writing in my exchanges with him. We have seen the same travesty with his inability to explain the most fundamental arguments of Earl Doherty and Richard Carrier even after supposedly reading sections of their books. But that’s no surprise because we saw the same distortions in Ehrman’s and Casey’s claims to have read and responded to mythicist arguments.

They — people like Coyne and McGrath — are not really engaging with the arguments of their opponents. They really do not know what their opponents are arguing.

But then I have to confess that I sometimes have rushed to conclusions about political and religious claims and other situations on some sort of instinct, or certainly with knee-jerk reactions. I do know that there was a time when I was like PZ Myer’s creationists. I was confident that I knew the fallacies at the heart of evolution and the thinking of scientists who wrote about it. And I know I have a tendency to form instant judgments when I listen to certain politicians speak.

So it was with interest that I read Rick Shenkman’s discussion of two types of thinking in Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics.

[E]volution teaches us to think quickly. In the life-and-death setting common in the world of hunter-gatherers, speed was of the essence in sizing up both people and situations. We couldn’t let anything get in the way of our making up our minds, not even an absence of facts. In circumstances where we lacked facts— a common occurrence in the real world— we found other bases upon which to make a decision. The point was to act. Dillydallying could kill you.

The legacy of this evolutionary inheritance is that today we leap to make decisions even when we don’t need to. Instead of waiting for facts we rush to judgment. Though in the modern world we are seldom called on to render a lightning-fast, life-or-death judgment involving a politician, that’s what we do. We can’t help ourselves. We are hardwired to think fast rather than to reflect at length.

Kahneman

(From Wikipedia)

Fast thinking (also known as System 1), as the pioneering psychologist Daniel Kahneman points out, is easy. It doesn’t require us to dwell. It really doesn’t require us to think at all, at least as most people define thinking. That’s because it mostly happens in the unconscious, where most of our brain functioning actually takes place. As psychologist Michael Gazzaniga informs us, “98 percent of what the brain does is outside of conscious awareness.” When Michael Jordan dunks a ball he doesn’t think through all the steps he needs to take to gain lift, angle his arms, and provide thrust. He performs these tasks automatically. If he suddenly tried to think about what he’s doing when dunking a ball he’d probably stumble. Reflection gets in the way of the performance of tasks that are usually left to the unconscious. Why is that? Reflection takes time. It’s slow thinking (System 2). Literally slow. Operations in the brain involving the unconscious are five times faster than those involving consciousness.

How do we arrive at a quick decision? We use shortcuts, what social scientists refer to as heuristics. Quick— which of these capital cities in Africa has the most people?

1. Libreville

2. Asmara

3. Cape Town

The answer is Cape Town. How do you know this? Because you have heard of Cape Town (pop. 3.74 million), and you probably haven’t heard of Libreville (pop. 797,000) or Asmara (pop. 649,000). Your brain concluded that since you haven’t heard of either city, chances are they aren’t very big. This is an example of the recognition heuristic. If we recognize something, our brain automatically assumes it must be because it’s important. Why do we vote for people whose names we recognize on the ballot even if we know nothing about them? It’s because we recognize their names. Our mere recognition of them must mean that they are known for something, and in the absence of a strong negative cue, we naturally believe it must be something positive. In fact, social scientists have discovered that familiarity seems to have the same effect on us as happiness. We get a charge in the reward center of our brain when we experience the familiar. And when do we become less analytical? When we are engaged in System 1 thinking.

Shenkman, Rick (2016-01-05). Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (pp. 53-54). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

My System 1 thinking is telling me that that is “so true”! But will that snap judgment stand up to the test of System 2 thought? read more »


2016-05-02

Common Reasons for Joining ISIS and Fighting ISIS

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by Neil Godfrey

Do not comment on this post unless you are prepared to stay to engage with possible alternative views and defend your own ideas in civil discourse. Angry and fly-by-nighter comments may be deleted.

I recently read an interesting news item about a group of elite veteran volunteers fighting ISIS in Syria. It was a story by Stewart Bell in Canada’s online National PostA secretive unit of international veterans went on its first anti-ISIL mission last fall. Hours later, a Canadian was dead. The article reminded me of other stories about veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who on their return find they sorely miss the close bonds formed in high adrenalin war situations. One of those stories was of Afghan veterans who join bikie gangs to revive the same depth of close relationships. The National Post article nailed it this way:

But adjusting to non-military life was a struggle. Adrenaline sports like skydiving and motorcycles couldn’t replace the thrill of Afghanistan. “You miss it,” he said. “You miss it so much.”

There’s another motivation drawing in the volunteers:

In a BBC News video he [the American leader of the volunteer force] said he had come to Syria in late 2014 after seeing photos of ISIL atrocities, in particular a 9-year-old boy nailed to a cross. “I need to fight ISIS,” he said. “If it takes someone’s life, even if it takes my life, so be it. This is a worthy cause.

It’s all very understandable.

It’s also a mirror of the reasons others from the West have gone to Syria to fight on the other side — for ISIS.

Abundant evidence demonstrates that many in the West become radicalised as a result of feeling disconnected from mainstream society. If military personnel returning from Afghanistan often find adjustment to normal life difficult, think how youth, especially a second generation of a Muslim community in a non-Muslim country, can all too often find themselves out of place. Such people are easy targets for idealistic groups that offer a new family relationship. Add to that the moral outrage over what they have seen of death, maiming, torture and destruction in the Middle East, or just Syria alone ….

These well understood mechanisms for the recruitment of radicalised volunteers have been discussed in my series based on FrictionHow Radicalization Happens to Them and Us and several other posts on terrorism.

The anti-ISIS volunteers arrived at their place through the mainstream national channels. The pro-ISIS volunteers through the back channels open to those disaffected by the national mainstream.

For other very human reasons some people have joined ISIS see Joining ISIS: It’s Not Always For Reasons You Might Assume. Now that post reminds me so much of my not so old posts comparing the motivations for joining religious cults with those for joining Islamist extremists.

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(The linked articles came to my attention via http://intelwire.egoplex.com/)


2016-04-30

“In Most Worlds, You Don’t Even Exist” — Miracles and Probability

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by Tim Widowfield

Jesus Walking on Water

Jesus Walking on Water (Ivan Aivazovsky)

Recently, while watching our favorite apoplectic antimythicist discuss “The Case of the Historical Jesus,” something the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature said caught my ear. Here’s what he said:

Historians tend to discount miracle claims and those kinds of things right off the bat, because even if they were to investigate them, the things that people call miracles tend to be things that are inherently improbable . . . But talking about things like walking on water, turning water into wine — most historians won’t even bother discussing those things, because the most a historian ever does is say something is probable. And a historian is never going to tell you that something inherently improbable is probable. And so those kinds of things can be set aside from the outset. (James McGrath, 2016)

Actually, two things drew my attention here. The first is the term inherently improbable, and the second is the claim that historians set aside miracle claims.

Inherently improbable

If you search among books, articles, and academic papers, you’ll find the term inherently improbable used quite frequently in the sciences, liberal arts, religious studies, and the law. But in philosophy (especially logic), you’ll also find people writing about it with some ambivalence.

What exactly do we mean by inherent probability? In his book, Acceptable Premises: An Epistemic Approach to an Informal Logic Problem, James Freeman cites John Nolt’s definition. read more »


2016-04-27

Myth Conference 2016

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by Neil Godfrey

May 22nd, 2016, at the City of Athens Cultural Centre

You may recall the book Jesus Mythicism: An Introduction by freelance journalist Minas Papageorgiou. The book was originally written for Greek readers and now there is a mythicist conference coming up soon in Greece. Some of the same names associated with the book also appear related to the Conference.

From the Conference website:

In November 2013 a group of Greek independent investigators decided to join their forces in the website mythikismos.gr, in an effort to present a fuller picture of the area of study called Mythicism. 

About two and a half years later, this area of investigation is becoming more and more popular in Greek society, attracting numerous scientists of various worldviews and beliefs. We have therefore decided to move one step further and organize, in collaboration with the Mythicist Milwaukee group, on May 22, 2016, in the city of Athens, the 1st Greek Mythicism Conference, with a free entrance to all.

The goal of this innovative conference is to feature the various manifestations of Mythicist concepts, as seen through the particular viewpoint of both Greek and foreign investigators, who do not necessarily embrace the same philosophical line of thought. The international character of the conference undoubtedly increases the value of this venture.

For the schedule: http://mythcon.gr/προγραμμαschedule/

And for the speakers: http://mythcon.gr/ομιλητεσ-2/

And for the translation: http://itools.com/tool/google-translate-web-page-translator

I like the way it goes beyond the historicity of Jesus question. It’s certainly eclectic. I hope some of the presentations will be available online afterwards. I’d personally like to see even more eclecticism in future years so methodological approaches comparable to those of Carrier (and non-secularists like Brodie) can gain a hearing.

 


2016-04-26

Interview

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by Neil Godfrey

For the record I was interviewed by Phil Robinson for Nuskeptix. Tech problems mercifully (for me, not being in my comfort zone) cut the interview short and it may be completed at a future date. What I would like to do is expand on some of the questions in future posts. One point in particular was the question regarding the human form of Jesus in the gospels, in particular the first gospel, that of Mark. What I had in mind was that even in Jewish mystical writings (e.g. Ezekiel’s visions) we find the Glory of God depicted in the form of a man who gets up off his chariot and walks around Jerusalem; and then again we have other writings referencing an Ideal Heavenly Man, and a Son of Man figure in heaven — I would think that such a background would make it almost inevitable that at some point someone would imagine, especially in parable form, a celestial figure acting out a human-earthly career. So


2016-04-25

Once more on reactions to Brian Bethune’s Macleans article

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by Neil Godfrey

Coincidentally with my own two posts Richard Carrier has been posting on two other reactions to the widening interest in questions about the historicity of Jesus. He takes the trouble to respond to James McGrath’s typically dishonest nonsense (this time against Raphael Lataster’s new book), and to respond point by point to John Tors’ reaction to Brian Bethune’s Macleans’ article.

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On Stanley Porter’s reaction: Biblical Scholars Reacting to Public Interest in Mythicism: Part 1

On Philip Jenkins’ reaction: Biblical Scholars Reacting . . . Part 2

 

 


2016-04-24

“Say My Name” — Anonymous Women in the Bible

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by Tim Widowfield

First half of the 17th century

The Wedding at Cana, Simon de Vos (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During my mother’s last few weeks, I read to her from the Bible. Picking around, I looked for the most comforting passages. As she slipped in and out of consciousness, I tried reading from the Sermon on the Mount, but it wasn’t helpful. In the end I read mostly from the Gospel according to John, especially where Jesus speaks directly about hope, life, light, and the resurrection.

“In my father’s house, there are many mansions.”

To me, John seems the most “Christian” of all the gospels. By that I mean, if I were a Christian and had to choose only one gospel to survive after an asteroid hit the Earth, I would probably pick John. Yet it has quite a bit missing when you compare it to the Synoptics.

For one thing, like Mark, there’s no nativity story. But we can live without that. It also lacks the parables and exorcisms that litter the landscape in the other three gospels. However, in return we get the so-called “signs,” and we gain the long discourses in which Jesus explains himself.

And we get these verses that I read to my mother, over and over again, as she lay dying:

In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.

And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. (John 14:2-3, KJV)

You could still make a good case for Matthew. With it, we get a family tree and an exciting birth legend. We also get the name of Jesus’ mother, something John omitted. Yes, as odd as it sounds, John never got around to telling us Mary’s name. We know her only by her relationship to men.

Our Blessed Lady of Whoever

She appears to be a woman of some substance, since she commands the servants at the wedding in Cana to “do whatever he tells you.” But she has no identity outside her relationship to her son. Try to imagine Christianity with an anonymous mother of Christ. It’s no easy task. read more »


2016-04-23

Biblical Scholars Reacting . . . Part 2

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by Neil Godfrey

Continues from part 1 . . . .

Philip Jenkins in his reaction, The Myth of the Mythical Jesus, has an even more blunt response to anyone who ventures into the “far swamps of extreme crankery” by pursuing questions that have no place among biblical scholars:

Scholarship is what scholars do, and if they don’t do it, it’s not scholarship. That is by far the most important point against the mythicists, and really, nothing more needs to be said.

Jenkins remains silent about Carrier’s book, the book that largely prompted Brian Bethune to ask serious questions about the evidence for the existence of Jesus. One can only conclude Jenkins has not read it and that his confidence that he knows all he needs to know about mythicist arguments is perversely misplaced. After all, it’s not a view “done” by scholars so it would be a waste of time bothering with it. One cannot imagine a more classic illustration of contempt for (ideologically incorrect) public interests.

Such ignorance gives him the confidence that merely repeating a few mantras to a few informal mythicist bylines he may have heard second hand or from some “over zealous riff-raff on the web” is all that he needs to do to persuade right-thinking people to stay clear of the danger zones around those far swamps.

The affirmative evidence for that existence is easily offered, consisting as it does of a sizable body of writings dating from within a half century of the events described.

Those documents are, without question, the most closely debated and analyzed in human history. A vast body of scholars works on those texts and their implications, and they come from a wide body of religious backgrounds – Christians of every possible shade, Jews, skeptics and atheists, and people of various other faiths. Within that scholarly universe, the number of qualified scholars who today deny the historical existence of Jesus is infinitesimal. The consensus on that matter is near-total. (My bolding and formatting in all quotations)

“A paper I had written on a disturbing, ridiculous, and idiosyncratic method used by historicists was rejected by a prominent society of Biblical literature, but was later accepted by a general historical research organisation – forgive me if I feel a smug sense of vindication.[32] This paper dealt with what I call Ehrman’s law, which shall be explained later and discussed throughout this book. My presentation of the paper was very successful, with almost everybody (a room full of proper historians) agreeing with me that this method used by Biblical ‘historians’ is ridiculous and not typical of historians proper.

“[32] Raphael Lataster, “The Gospel According to Bart: The Folly of Ehrman’s Hypothetical Sources” (paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Australian Historical Association, Sydney, 7th July 2015).”

Lataster, Raphael (2015-11-12). Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists (Kindle Locations 400-405).  . Kindle Edition.

Mainstream biblical scholars often point to atheists among their ranks as evidence that they are not swayed by Christian bias. Craig Evans in the debate mentioned in my previous post did this when he spoke of the atheist James Crossley arguing that the Gospels were written considerably earlier than even many Christian scholars concede. What Evans was doing in reality was demonstrating that atheist scholars can only survive in the Christian dominated field of biblical studies as long as they conform to the minimal ideological foundations of Christianity. Arguing a Marxist model of Christian origins naturally conforms admirably with the values of many liberal Christians.

In fact neither Bethune nor anyone denies the “near total consensus” in the public face of the biblical studies guild. When prominent authors like Philip Jenkins not only demonstrate their ignorance of the arguments of those “infinitesimally” few scholars but even despite their ignorance insult them as belonging to the “far swamps of crankery”, one has to wonder if Raphael Lataster is quite correct when he writes that the historicity of Jesus is a debate that cannot be conducted among biblical scholars but can only move forward in other history and religion departments.

Hence reaction, neither engagement nor education, is the response.

Jenkins sees no need to bother with anything Carrier might have written nor even with the actual problems raised by Bethune. Leave all that to the “swamps of extreme crankery” — a nice intimidating phrase attached to the pointy headed doubters among those leprous masses.

And so Jenkins proceeds to address what he blindly presumes anonymous ignoramuses argue. The challenging questions of Bethune and Carrier are lost in the far swamps of Jenkins’s awareness and are replaced by some vague general points from the minds of an undefined “they”.

The first vague point unrelated to any of the questions troubling Bethune and that is posed as a substitute for Bethune’s questions:

  • *Contemporary writers do not refer to Jesus

Jenkins’s ignorance of serious mythicist arguments is palpable. Sweeping aside the issues of concern to Brian Bethune and many readers of the Macleans article, Jenkins embarrasses any slightly knowledgeable reader with this “explanation”:

All the canonical sources depict a very plausible Jesus in a very identifiable early first century historical setting. More significant, there are clear and well understood chains of evidence and tradition from Jesus’s time to the writing of those gospels.

Plausibility is a condition of historicity but that is a long step from being an argument for any particular scenario. Historical fiction works because it is equally plausible, set as it is in real times and places. That this point is ever raised as a serious argument for the historicity of Jesus is truly an embarrassment to our intellectual elites. Craig Evans made much of it in his debate with Richard Carrier. Why? It’s so obviously a red-herring, a non sequitur, an offence to anyone who has read any historical fiction, including ancient historical fictional writings.

As for the second point that there are “clear and well understood chains of evidence and tradition from Jesus’s time to the writing of the gospels”? Well, yes, there certainly are “clear and well understood” imaginative constructs of what scholars who presume a core historicity behind the gospel narratives believe must have existed. Of course there is no evidence for those oral traditions. Indeed, works that have seriously challenged the prevailing presumption that “there must have been oral traditions” passed on from eyewitnesses to eventually reach the authors of the gospels have been largely ignored. (See discussions of some of these in the oral tradition archive, as well as other posts on scholarship presenting evidence for literary mimesis.) Yet Jenkins presents the presumed model of oral tradition as part of a “clear and well understood chain of evidence“!

Clearly unaware of his ignorance that the mythicist case for Jesus as an “otherworldly being” is grounded in the writings of

  • the New Testament epistles
  • and Revelation,
  • other Second Temple Jewish literature,
  • and documents such as the original form of the Ascension of Isaiah dated by mainstream scholars to the end of the first or very early second century,

Jenkins surely mystifies readers of Macleans and Carrier’s book when he writes: read more »


Biblical Scholars Reacting to Public Interest in Mythicism: Part 1

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by Neil Godfrey

Biblical scholars are reacting uncomfortably to signs of public interest in the view that Jesus did not exist. Not all biblical scholars, though. A tiny few do publicly welcome and accommodate this mythicist view of Jesus with their Christian faith and others who have confessed to being open-minded on the question. (For details see Who’s Who: Mythicists and Mythicists Agnostics.) But it is no secret that biblical studies is dominated by the Christian faith, both its liberal and conservative wings, so when articles questioning the most fundamental precept of that faith appear in prominent media outlets like The Washington Post, Salon.com, and most recently Macleans, some of those scholars let their indignation and impatience show. Unfortunately for their cause, however, while they focus on defending their traditional assumptions they all too often completely ignore (or misrepresent) the actual reasons many intelligent and educated people continue to have doubts.

My own position on mythicism: Following is my (slightly modified) email reply to someone who recently asked me if I was an agnostic on the mythicist question. —

Yes. It is the best we can argue. The evidence and critical methods we have can only allow us to argue that our New Testament literature can well be explained without recourse to a historical Jesus but that fact does not itself prove their was no historical Jesus. Even some “historicists” admit that the historical Jesus is essentially irrelevant to what became Christianity.

Personally I see no reason to believe in the existence of a historical Jesus but I cannot prove that position, so I must remain agnostic. The best I can do is to demonstrate how the evidence we have for Christian origins can be explained far more cogently without reference to a historical figure.

[A danger some mythicists fall into is an ideological desire to prove Jesus was not historical but the expression of some other deity or cosmic phenomena,] — that is, looking only for evidence to support their theory. That approach is susceptible to confirmation bias. If we can’t find ways to test our hypotheses and identify how they could be disproved then we are not using valid historical or scientific reasoning. [I think a more interesting and profitable pursuit than trying to prove or disprove the historicity of Jesus is to explore and understand the evidence that sheds light on Christianity’s origins.]

In posts on Vridar I’ve said several times that by explaining the origin of a gospel narrative as an adaptation of another story (say, Jesus stilling the storm from the Jonah story) we do not disprove the historicity of the event. Ditto if we find mythical associations with Jesus: even known historical emperors described themselves and were described by others in ways comparing them with mythical persons. What matters is what the evidence we have points us towards. If we have evidence for a literary or mythological borrowing, and that is all there is, then — all other things being equal — it is reasonable to tentatively assume that that the literary or mythological source is the origin of our narrative. But our conclusion is tentative – pending the discovery of additional evidence that there is also a historical source.

In this series of posts I will address the public responses of two mainstream scholars, Philip Jenkins and Stanley Porter (who responds jointly with Hughson Ong, a relatively new name in the field), to Brian Bethune’s discussion of Bart Ehrman’s new popular book, Jesus Before the Gospels, in the context of questions raised by Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus. The two articles:

Both responses are clearly written with considerable impatience:

In debates about Christian origins, one tiresome canard is going to come up sporadically, and usually, it’s not worth wasting time on. (Jenkins)

Here we go again, chasing after another ill-conceived theory about the Bible, this being one that periodically rises from the mordant ooze. (Porter-Ong)

And both responses completely sidestep Brian Bethune’s core questions. By way of reminder here are those unaddressed questions that arise from Ehrman’s book:

Q1. Almost entirely from the Christian tradition

Ehrman’s memory book, in effect, is more an appeal to the faithful to accept historians’ approach than a new way of evaluating evidence. His list of what historians, including himself, think they can attest to hardly differs from a list he would have made a decade ago:

  • Jesus was a Jew,
  • an apocalyptic preacher like the man who baptized him, John the Baptist;
  • his teaching, rooted in Torah, was delivered in parables and aphorisms;
  • Jesus had followers who claimed his message was validated by the miracles he wrought;
  • in the last week of his life, Jesus went to Jerusalem, where he caused a disturbance in the Temple that, some hours later, led to his arrest;
  • Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor found him guilty of sedition and had him crucified.

However appealing and reasonable such a list is to modern skeptics, it is still drawn almost entirely from within the faith tradition, with buttressing by the slimmest of outside supports—brief references from Roman observers. (My own bolded emphasis and formatting in all quotations)

Q2. Buttressed by the slimmest of outside supports

Bethune then shows us just how slim the most “rock-solid” of those outside supports are:

Consider one item on Ehrman’s list, perhaps the most accepted and certainly the one with the largest claim to historical accuracy embedded within it: Pontius Pilate executed Jesus. Scholars are almost universally on-side, as are most Christian churches. Pilate is the sole figure from Jesus’s trial for whom we have undoubted archaeological evidence, and he’s also, perhaps coincidentally, the only one to become part of the Nicene Creed, the most widely embraced capsule statement of Christian faith: “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.”

But that wasn’t what all early Christians thought.

  • The apocryphal Gospel of Peter says King Herod signed the death warrant.
  • Others who thought Jesus was nearly 50 when he died believed that happened in the 40s of the first century, long after Pilate had been recalled to Rome.
  • The Nazorians, an intriguing sect of Torah-observant early Christians discussed by a fourth-century scholar, believed Jesus died a century before the canonical Gospels, around 70 BCE. (And, since they were descended directly from the first followers of Christ, called Nazarenes before they became known as Christians, the Nazorians cannot be easily dismissed. The Babylonian Talmud, composed by the fifth century, notes the same.)

Yet Pilate is in Mark as the agent of Jesus’s crucifixion, from which he spread to the other Gospels, and also in the annals of the Roman historian Tacitus and writings by his Jewish counterpart, Josephus. Those objective, non-Christian references make Pilate as sure a thing as ancient historical evidence has to offer, unless—as has been persuasively argued by numerous scholars, including historian Richard Carrier in his recent On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason For Doubtboth brief passages are interpolations, later forgeries made by zealous Christians. . . .

The Gospels are forthright in their agendas to serve theological and not historical needs. Mark may have pinned Jesus’s death on Pilate because he knew or believed it to be true, says Carrier, or he may have been practising “apocalyptic math.” [“Apocalyptic math” is a reference to the interest in that day of finding a timetable for the appearance of the messiah in the mysterious numbers in the Book of Daniel.]

Craig Evans interlude

Uh oh, is Carrier befuddling the public with the question begging “interpolation” card? Is he blithely sweeping aside contrary evidence as possible forgeries? That’s how Craig Evans, another mainstream scholar, chose to react to Carrier’s case in a recent debate. But in a live debate situation Carrier was able to respond on the spot and remind the audience that far from any question begging, detailed and abundant evidence for the claim of forgery was used to back up the assertion. (Bart Ehrman himself not very long ago even wrote another popular book demonstrating just how widespread forgery was in the early Christian world.)

http://ksutv.kennesaw.edu/play.php?v=00030027

When Craig Evans brushed aside Carrier’s assertions he was brushing aside all the evidence and argument upon which those assertions were grounded. That’s not addressing the arguments; it’s reacting to them in a way that leaves the critical public unpersuaded. read more »


2016-04-18

Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 4: Genre

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by Tim Widowfield

In the last installment, we covered oral tradition. As I look over the post now, I see that I missed several opportunities to add the adjective, “rich.” Biblical scholars love to write the words “rich oral tradition.” How, you may ask, do they know such details about something based mostly on conjecture? Watch out! If you keep asking questions like that, you’ll earn yourself demerits for skepticism.

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bart Ehrman naturally considers it important to expound upon the rich oral tradition™ behind the gospels, because it connects the historical Jesus to the written New Testament. Serious scholars would probably also care about how the evangelists assembled that material. They would ask themselves what the authors intended. Did they think they were writing biographies, histories, hagiographies, novels, or what? Were authors of the gospels even conscious of what they were doing; did they have a plan?

What is a gospel?

An actual historian would most likely start with the written work first, and work back from there. He or she would want to determine the type of document we’re dealing with — i.e., the genre of the gospels. We’ve covered this topic many times on Vridar, including my series about how the consensus changed dramatically over the past century.

As we learned previously, the form critics cared about genre, too. Rudolf Bultmann called it the first task of form criticism. Until we confirm that the gospel of Mark is not a story about Jesus, but a collection of stories about Jesus, we have no solid grounds for dividing the book into individual pericopae (that supposedly came from distinct oral streams).

Oddly enough, the scholar credited as the father of Formgeschichte, Hermann Gunkel, never used the word. Rather, he focused on the Gattung or genre of the literature in the Old Testament. He well understood the need to identify the book of Genesis as a large collection of individual traditions assembled under the guiding hand of gifted redactors. He accepted the prevailing Graf-Wellhausen theory that the Pentateuch is composed of four main separate, written sources: J, E, D, and P. But he also argued that the individual source documents reflect much older oral tradition.

Are the gospels written “memories”?

However, in Jesus Before the Gospels, Bart Ehrman sidesteps the entire issue, preferring instead to treat the gospels as memories. At least in the case of their readers, the gospels certainly became memories. But he does not provide any sustained credible argument that the gospel stories had been actual memories of their communities, let alone give us any reason to believe that such memories go back to real events that occurred in the life of Jesus.

He introduces his discussion of the canonical gospels not by telling us they are biographies, histories, or whatever. Skipping over the unpleasant task of trying to place the gospels in their literary setting, he simply asserts they are writings that contain memories. Ehrman explains: read more »